7 Secrets Only College Financial Aid Experts Know

college financial aid advisorcollege financial aid advisorBy Tracy Saelinger

"Financial aid officers have a limited budget to attract students," says Brannon Lloyd, president of The College Money Guys, a Houston-based college financial planning firm. "If you apply early decision or put only one school on your FAFSA [the standard financial aid form], that school will know it doesn't need to allocate as much of its budget to persuade you to enroll." Photo by Getty Images

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2. FILL OUT THE FAFSA EARLY Even though most schools have a spring deadline, aim to send in your form during the first two weeks of January. "Schools will already be going through their budgets, and the later you apply for aid, the less they might have to give," says Tim Higgins, author of Pay for College Without Sacrificing Your Retirement.

3. CONSIDER APPLYING TO PRIVATE SCHOOLS Many families who qualify for financial aid don't look at private schools because of those $40,000-plus annual price tags. But these schools can often offer merit scholarships that make tuition equal to or even less than that of state schools, Lloyd says.

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4. HOME EQUITY IS UNLIKELY TO COUNT AGAINST YOU "The FAFSA doesn't require you to disclose your home's value," says Higgins, and fewer than 300 schools will ask you to fill out a College Scholarship Service Profile (CSS), which does. So even if it's unmortgaged or worth a lot, your house probably won't limit the amount of aid your child will be eligible for. But if you do need to fill out a CSS, figure out your Expected Family Contribution at FinAid.org/Calculators to estimate what you'll be asked to pay.

5. LOOK INTO GOVERNMENT LOANS To avoid cosigning your child's student loan (an option that can saddle parents with debt if the graduate can't pay), have him or her take out a Perkins government loan or an unsubsidized Stafford loan, which isn't need-based, says Higgins. Undergrads can borrow a maximum of $27,000 by the end of four years.

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6. COLLEGE KIDS CAN WIN MONEY TOO Scholarships are available after high school graduation. Many academic departments in college award monetary prizes for participation in certain majors or activities, says Ben Kaplan, who went to Harvard for free and now publishes Scholaroo.com. Students should ask their academic advisor and heads of departments. Also, browse CollegeScholarships.org.

7. CLEP TESTS CAN ADD UP TO A FREE YEAR Most parents know that Advanced Placement (AP) tests can earn college credits, but few are aware of the College Level Exam Program (CLEP), offered by the College Board, says Katherine Cohen, CEO of IvyWise, an educational consulting firm. Like APs, the CLEP exam lets high school grads earn hours of college credit. The 90-minute tests cost $80 each, but with enough credit, new students can achieve sophomore standing at some schools, adding up to a 25% college savings, Kaplan says.

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